That was one of the most interesting courses during my history degree, and lots of these topics we discussed still accompany me in my every day life. One of the most impressive ones was the discussion around headscarves, that it’s not only a cliché that women are forced into, but that it means protection for them, or a way for them to express themselves in conjunction with their religious beliefs. It opened my eyes and I’m thankful for that.
Last year, Steven Quilley of the University of Waterloo, Ontario, joined us to talk about “Environmentalism at the Margins: Exploring existing possibilities for an alternative modernity”. There’s a lot of fascinating ideas about how society is organised, where the world is headed and where it might go instead. Here’s the video – enjoy!
Understood as a complex adaptive system and through the lens of Holling’s Panarchy heuristic, modern industrial capitalism is a ‘deep basin of attraction’. The global consumer society has proved itself to be a profoundly resilient system – resilient, but nevertheless biophysically limited. As the metabolism of global civilization begins to breach significant thresholds and transgress ‘planetary boundaries’ humanity is approaching social-ecological ‘tipping points’. Experiencing the concatenating effects of collapsing economies, degraded ecosystems, social crisis, political chaos, communal violence and war, failed and failing states are tracing the outlines of an undesirable basin of attraction defined by collapse. The challenge facing humanity amounts to a rather simple wicked dilemma: is it possible to reconcile technological and socio-political modernity (and all the requisite flows of materials, energy and information) with biosphere integrity and sustainable global life support systems. In this paper, we argue that the alternative modernity defined by this wicked problem should be envisaged as a ‘third basin of attraction’ i.e. the often-vaunted political economy of the ‘third way’ construed through the language of systems theory. In this paper, we explore the outlines of such an ‘attractor’ in terms of political economy, technological prerequisites and problems of culture/ontology. We explore some of the prefigurative possibilities evoked by various ‘environmentalisms at the margins’ i.e. counter-cultural lifestyles, intentional communities, disruptive technologies and practices, and alternative social commitments. These are building niches in diverse settings that could begin to contour space for a new kind of modernity, one that could enable socially and technologically complex human societies to thrive without compromising long-term ecological integrity. Specifically, we investigate how community-based health systems, micro-fabrication and Maker culture, and new religious movements at the periphery of the environmental movement may contribute to a developing ‘third basin of attraction’ – an alternative to the primary basin of attraction of consumer capitalism and the all too near second basin of societal collapse.
What is a human body? This may seem a facetious question, but the answer will be very different according to which medical tradition you consult. Take Ayurveda, a traditional system of medical knowledge from India which has enjoyed a renaissance of popularity in the West since the 1980s – and is the subject of a new exhibition at London’s Wellcome Collection.
Walking round the show, one is encouraged to explore different ways of understanding and visualising the human body. The Ayurvedic body differs significantly from that of European biomedicine, which is based on dissection. The Ayurvedic body is a body of systems. It is conceptualised as being composed of five constituent parts (mahābūta), seven body substances (dhātu) and three regulating qualities (doṣa). According to Ayurvedic theory, by attending to imbalances between these principles in a body, health might be promoted and illness avoided. The Ayurvedic concepts of the doṣas – vata, pitta and kapha can be seen in the West today promoting teas, soaps and massages.
But of course, there are many other different conceptions of the human body. There is the tantric understanding, often conflated with that of Ayurveda. Tantra focuses on the concept of energy channels (nāḍīs) which have particular centres of concentration along a line in the centre of the body (chakras). The traditional Chinese model, on the other hand, emphasises the dynamic principles of ying and yang as being paramount for ensuring health. Meanwhile, indigenous healing in many traditional cultures identifies problems between the individual and the greater social and metaphysical context as the cause of illness.
Competing medical systems
So what, then, has determined the dominance of one medical system of thought over another? The answer is far more complex than the “correct” or “most accurate” one.
This complexity is epitomised by the central piece of the exhibition, one of very few illustrations of the classical Ayurvedic systemic descriptions of the human body. This 16th-century drawing, as Dominik Wujastyk’s research has shown, was probably produced at the request of a rich, Nepalese patron by a scholar-physician, a scribe and a painter, none of whom were fluent with the original Sanskrit source. The Nepalese artist was clearly influenced by Tibetan medical illustrations.
We don’t know how this image was originally used or how influential it was, but its creation was dependent upon patronage and intercultural exchange. It was out of this mix of cultures, then, that came one of the most iconic visual presentations of the “Indian” Ayurvedic body.
Economic and political powers are strong influences on the shape and popularity of Indian concepts of the body today. Yoga is currently the most widespread Indian approach to promoting the health of the body. It is flourishing globally. Millions attest that yoga makes them feel better and Ayurvedic concepts are often presented as integral to yoga practices.
But it is not well known that the contemporary global interest in Ayurveda and yoga is partially a result of colonial mismanagement of India. This point is creatively illustrated in the Wellcome’s new show through an interactive commission by the artist Ranjit Kandalgaonkar. Millions of lives were lost throughout the colonial period due to forcible redistribution of food and other resources away from local Indian populations, to serve what were considered to be the greater needs of the British Empire.
As I have argued elsewhere, reactions to the tragic deaths of millions of Indians transformed yoga. Swami Vivekananda was inspired by the effects of famine and plague to redefine Karma Yoga as a social-service mission. Many leaders of the Indian independence movement, including Mahatmas Gandhi and Mohan Malaviya, promoted Indian approaches to medicine and health.
And so the establishment of the modern Indian nation was closely linked with the health of millions of individual Indian bodies through “Indian” systems of healing. This continues today as the prime minister Narendra Modi demonstrates through his association with Indian’s popular “yoga-televangelist” Swami Ramdev and the elevation of traditional medicine to that of an independent government department.
The promotion and preservation of Indian medicinal knowledge is laudable. But it is important not to oversimplify complex and sophisticated descriptions rooted in different worldviews. Economic imperatives often flatten traditions into marketable exports – and intercultural exchanges both enrich and confuse our models of understanding.
So should there be one answer, one dominant understanding of the body? I’m currently part of a team researching the overlaps between yoga, Ayurvedic medicine and Indian longevity practices (rasāyana) over the past 1000 years. Our research emphasises a plurality of understandings through time. Both yoga and Ayurveda are characterised by a diversity of practices, as well as by internal conceptual coherency. Millennia of intercultural exchange has created problems for asserting national ownership of traditional medical knowledge.
All medical systems have shared interests in promoting human health and longevity. But it is important to understand the differences as well as the similarities. As early as 1923, Indian commentators were expressing concern about the potential biomedical “mining” of traditional remedies for single active ingredients. One commentator in the Usman Report, a pan-Indian survey of over 200 indigenous medical practitioners, asks: “Does this amount to quackery” by biomedical physicians?
Today, our mental image of our bodies is largely picture built up from dissection and, more recently, x-rays and various other scans. Yet in practice, we understand our bodies as a changing system. We monitor our energy levels. We adjust how we feel with food, drink, sleep, exercise and drugs. The Ayurvedic, system-oriented body, then, is perhaps not that far from most people’s daily experience. So how might we better visualise our bodies based on our lived, somatic understandings?
Ayurveda is a rich and complex tradition that has always encompassed influences from a variety of cultures as well as retaining very specific, local applications. Ayurveda cannot be reduced to a simple definition, marketing slogan or quantifiable national export. The Wellcome’s new show explores these complicated relationships and raises important questions. If we are not to become “quacks” ourselves, we must continue to resist reductions of the human body into a single visual model.
David Robertson has published a piece over at the blog of CenSAMM, the Centre for the Critical Study of Apocalyptic and Millennial Movements, on the function of conspiracy theories in Heaven’s Gate.
Srrody’s exit statement claims that those who are fighting “this or that conspiracy or global plot” are “only seeing the most obvious deceptions”, whereas Heaven’s Gate has given him knowledge of the true “negative forces” in control of the world – Luciferian extraterrestrials. As odd as this narrative might seem, it’s in fact identical to William Cooper’s Behold a Pale Horse(1991), a foundational text for New World Order conspiracy theorists.
In 3 minutes (and change), Carole Cusack (University of Sydney) tells us about the life, work and importance of the Georgian spiritual teacher, George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. Although his System is obscure and often counter-intuitive, he is one of the three foundational figures of contemporary esoteric culture.
Are you “food for the moon”? Let us know in the comments!
Just published is a special issue of Journal of American Studies on US evangelicalism and globalization – with article by our own John Maiden, entitled Renewing the Body of Christ: Sharing of Ministries Abroad (SOMA) USA and Transnational Charismatic Anglicanism, 1978–1998.
Sharing of Ministries Abroad (SOMA) was formed in the late 1970s as an international organization for the cultivation of charismatic renewal amongst leaderships within the global Anglican Communion. This article explores the ethos and activities of its American national body. It argues that its short term, cross-cultural missions increasingly displayed mutuality and long-term partnership rather than one-directional American influence, and thus reflected a developing shift in the understanding and practice of global mission in the late twentieth century. The organiztion shaped awareness of the global Church amongst some US Episcopalians and constructed an influential transnational network within charismatic Anglicanism. Furthermore, SOMA’s network was one context for the emergence of global North–South conservative solidarity in the politics of the Anglican Communion.
Religious objects almost fill the British Museum. In galleries dedicated to Islamic and Asian cultures as well as those related to health and healing there are many artefacts made for religious use. There are large portions of temples from ancient Sumeria, Egypt and Greece. There are deity statues from the Pacific, ancestor masks from Africa and icons from Greece and Russia. A full list would be a long one! And if you search for religious terms in the museum’s website — or in the Google Arts and Culture site related to the BM — the objects displayed are abundant. “Faith”, for instance, appears to be a popular theme for curators and website organisers. This fact indicates more than the presence of objects that originated in religious contexts. It points to the employment of religion as interpretative lens in this putatively secular institution. Two recent additions to the British Museum increase not only the presence of religious objects but also of religious interpretations.
The “Lion Man” Sculpture
In collaboration with BBC Radio 4 and with a book publisher, the British Museum currently has a temporary exhibition “Living with gods” in its premier gallery, Room 35 beneath the imposing central rotunda. This brings together the 40,000 year old “Lion Man” sculpture from the Stadel Cave, Germany, with recently collected objects such as Jewish kippot (skull caps — one displaying affiliation with a football club), and examples of souvenirs brought home by pilgrims. In between the ancient figure and the contemporary souvenirs are items drawn from across the museum’s collections: e.g. Coptic processional crosses, Hopi kachinas, Islamic prayer rugs, Buddhist icons, a Hindu juggernaut, Zoroastrian and Protestant prayer costumes. Any one of these could generate lengthy discussion — just as they have generated considerable devotion.
For those of us interested in religion as a bodily and material practice, there is something odd about the exhibition. Despite the prevalence of materiality that make ritual acts central to religion, the exhibition is framed and structured by words which insist that religion is defined by believing. Most curiously, the final display board before the exit from Room 35 uses words like “indeterminate”, “ineffable”, “never seen” and “not accessible”. Admittedly, these are said of an (indeterminate) “it” but the presumption must be that they refer to religion, faith, gods and other putatively transcendent realities. Conversations with other visitors to the gallery suggested that I was not alone in finding this an odd conclusion to draw about rich material cultures. Indeed, overheard comments on particular items in the exhibition strongly suggest that at least some objects continue to engage people quite viscerally and directly. Thus, the “Living with gods” exhibition deserves wider attention.
Commemoration of the bicentennial of the birth of Baha’u’llah
The second addition to the British Museum’s displays is a case commemorating the bicentennial of the birth of Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith. Along with information about Baha’u’llah, the case contains objects owned by him, such as his glasses and pens, as well as examples of writings considered revelatory by Baha’is. It is placed at the rear of the museum’s Gallery of the Islamic World, devoted to “the cultures of peoples living in lands where the dominant religion is Islam”. The Baha’i Faith has spread worldwide and promotes a vision of global unity. The display case was the focus of considerable attention at a reception hosted in the gallery by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United Kingdom. A series of speeches emphasised key themes in Baha’i teachings and celebrated the perception that being able to handle the founder’s pens and correspondence provides an authenticity greater than that of other religions. The positioning, contents and response to this new display provide further encouragements to those of us interested in understanding the presence, practice and politics of religion in the contemporary world.
In 2015, an extreme metal band named Batushka appeared, with details about band-members scarce. A deliberately cultivated sense of mystery surrounded their album entitled Litourgiya, featuring a cover which reproduced an orthodox-style icon, heavy on the gold paint (it actually closely resembled another unusual metal album cover, from Advaitic Songs by the band Om, but that’s another story). The music was a gripping combination of pummeling riffs, thunderous percussion and hoarse screeching, but all this guitar distortion and screaming was centred around a chanting of the Russian Orthodox liturgy.
This absorbing combination quickly gathered attention online, and soon enough word had spread to the point that the album has been released in at least twenty different editions on a variety of formats. Soon enough there was an intensive tour schedule, with the stage show including copious amounts of candles, incense in swinging censers, musicians masked and clothed in lavish robes, and an ornately framed painted icon held up at the beginning of the set and then placed reverentially on a lectern. The band’s luminously beautiful website is so rich in religious symbolism you can practically smell it. Of course, the one thing that sells better in the metal underground than great music, is great music shrouded in intrigue and opaque ritual. Two questions continue to be asked about Batushka: what is the identity of the musicians? And what is their religious status?
Metal bands have always, from the earliest origins of the genre in the early 1970s, played ambivalently with the symbols of ritual and religion. Black Sabbath wore large crucifixes on stage and addressed the devil in their eponymous track, while their first album famously featured an inverted cross in the inner gatefold (placed there by designers, as legend has it, unbeknownst to the band). Since then, various bands have combined or contrasted pagan and Christian symbols, played with various versions of Satanism, and expressed all imaginable kinds of religious and anti-religious positions. Participants in metal cultures, as well as external onlookers, have often sought to ask similar kinds of questions: is this music, this band, or this track, anti-Christian? Is it Christian? Is it Satanic? Is it religious?
[fig. 1: A place beyond belief by Nathan Coley. Photo Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney.]
In 2013, Nathan Coley’s art installation “A place beyond belief” was brought to Orkney’s shore. The words provoke: what does it mean to be a place beyond belief? One interpretation, enhanced by the juxtaposition of the sign with spire of the redundant church behind it (now Stromness’ Town Hall), is that here is place where church membership, and apparently the relevance of religious belief itself, has declined dramatically. As Steve Bruce has outlined in his book Scottish Gods, the story of the Scottish islands, in keeping with the rest of the UK, has been one of increasing disengagement from organised religion; non-belief emerging as the norm. In this sense, it is becoming a place beyond belief. Yet for those who described the sculpture in its Orkney setting, another interpretation presented itself: here was a place of wonder, a place beyond our limited capacity for belief. A magical place, even.
Crucially, the two readings don’t rule one another out. Even as religious belief declines, wonder does not disappear.
This question of what it means to be ‘beyond belief’ is at the heart of the new project we’re starting in OU Religious Studies entitled “Magical thinking in contexts and situations of unbelief”. Our research is part of a bigger, inter-disciplinary project hosted by the University of Kent entitled Understanding Unbelief, and will draw on experiences from our fieldwork in Nicosia, Cyprus (Theodoros Kyriakides) and Orkney (Richard Irvine).
So, what do we mean by unbelief? Our colleagues at Kent have put together a neat glossary of the core concepts for the project of “Understanding Unbelief”, which also provides a definition of the given word. Our objective as anthropologists and ethnographers is, of course, to go beyond definitions. One would be right to exclaim that “unbelief” is a quite vague term and, in such sense, our research does not seek to pinpoint or validate what unbelief is, or where it takes place. Rather, our aim is to use the given term as a springboard, in order to reach a more ethnographically grounded, nuanced understanding of the spectrum of social phenomena which take place in the in-between of large, yet analytically rudimentary, terms such as “unbelief”, “religion”, “belief”, “atheism”, and so on. To try and glimpse what unbelief actually looks like in the messiness of everyday life.
More specifically, our research – *plugplug* – seeks to combine ethnographic literature on magic with emerging studies of atheism and non-religion to explore in what ways magical thinking emerges in the everyday lives of people who, in one way or another, are considered to be unbelievers. Magic is of course a foundational anthropological topic, and the relationship between humanity and magic as whole cannot be understated. For example, anthropologist Lévy-Bruhl used the (problematic) term “primitive mentality” to denote modes of reasoning of ‘tribal’ societies which do not make the distinction between natural and supernatural causality.
[fig. 2: Collection of evil eyes and lucky charms on coffee shop wall in Nicosia, Cyprus. Photo taken by Allyson McAbee.]
Later commentators – such as Stanley Tambiah – point out that the term “primitive mentality” was not intended to describe aspects of thinking specific to non-Western societies but rather a mode of thinking which, under the right social circumstances, can manifest in human consciousness and human action irrespectively of spatiotemporal and historical parameters. Similarly, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre used the term “magicality” to denote the ability of the human mind to adopt modes of thinking and reasoning which evade the normative social order.